While Notre Dame rebuilds, explore the city’s other medieval marvels.
The world watched with bated breath as Notre Dame cathedral was ravaged by fire. Shortly before midnight on April 15, after galloping flames tore down the spire and roof, a collective sigh of relief was released as official word came that the medieval masterpiece would still be standing by dawn, just as it has for the past 800 years. The worst was averted.
I’ve been leading tours at Notre Dame for ten years. It’s hard to imagine that I won’t get to share it again for at least another five. The good news is that there are other Gothic landmarks in the City of Light, starting with the very birthplace of the style.
The Basilica of Saint Denis is where Abbot Suger, the head of a 12th-century Benedictine monastery, had a vision that he turned into the world’s first Gothic reality. He believed that physical beauty is a gateway to the divine, and that light is an expression of God’s grace flowing down to earth. So he set out to build a new kind of church, flooded with freely-circulating light filtered through panes of colored glass. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Saint Denis also happens to boast the world’s largest collection of royal funerary sculpture, since it was the burial place of the kings of France.
The national museum of medieval art, or Cluny museum, is partially closed for renovations until 2021, but a selection of works from the collection is on view in brand new galleries. The uncontested star of the collection is as well: the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. This stunning series of six wall hangings, woven in silk and wool, never fails to intrigue with its mysterious symbolism and lush millefleur – or “thousands of flowers” – motifs. While you’re here, don’t miss the most impressive set of ancient ruins in northern France: the remains of a 2nd-century Roman bathhouse.
For the world’s largest display of medieval stained glass in its original setting, go to the Sainte Chapelle. Built by Louis IX – better known as Saint Louis – in the 13th century to house precious relics, the dazzling effect of those windows is like stepping into a jewel box. After you catch your breath from all this beauty, take the time to gaze at windows that tell story after story from the Bible: God creating Eve from Adam’s rib, Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea, and David wielding the severed head of Goliath.
If you’re still hungry for more Gothic, just next door to the Sainte Chapelle stands the world’s largest Gothic vaulted hall: the Conciergerie. The building served as the royal palace for the French monarchy from the 10th to the 14th centuries, and is most famous for its role as prison during the French Revolution. Visit the cell where the doomed queen Marie Antoinette spent her last days before being led to the guillotine.
While we eagerly await the reopening of Notre Dame cathedral, there is plenty to satisfy your craving for the Gothic in the City of Light.